In the publishing industry’s sprint to the holiday sales home stretch, few books succeed quite as well as the salacious celebrity bio — be it compelling biography or self-indulgent memoir. Whether written by devoted scholars or the icon in question (usually with the guiding hand of a ghostwriter), these pop culture tomes make for appealing reading and easy gifts — especially when probing the gossipy private life of a public figure. With the roll out of this year’s high-profile music bios — a staple of the celebrity book genre — now well under way, here’s a guide to the season’s standout studies and tone-deaf duds. Because, let’s face it: not everyone is as exciting on the page as they are on the stage.
If your associations with ’80s heartthrob Rick Springfield don’t extend beyond “Jessie’s Girl” and General Hospital, you’re probably not alone. In Late, Late At Night, Springfield tries to introduce the demons behind his sunny power-pop persona — he addresses battles with depression (a failed suicide attempt at 17 made him realize that music was his calling) and lifelong insecurities — but this actor/singer’s efforts to revivify his pop culture relevance turn more into a gushing tribute to his wife and kids than a spicy behind-the-scenes expose.
Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’ overview of the riot grrrl movement, falls somewhere between cultural study and anecdotal history. Writing from the point of view of both a journalist and a veteran of the movement, Marcus’ insightful account is filled with the passion the propelled the Riot Grrrl Nation. The result is engaging and reactionary, if somewhat sporadic — not unlike the movement itself.
Being described as “a capering streak of living gristle,” as Paul Hitchens recently wrote in The Daily Mail, is hardly an insult for Keith Richards. And indeed, every pirate-referencing, living-corpse analogizing, rock star-romancing writer to wager an adjective at this founding Rolling Stones member has been left with only inadequate clichés. In Life, we get Richards’ own sputtered take on himself as he reexamines his decades in the world’s quintessential rock ‘n roll band, appeasing die-hard fans with private insights to his professional and personal life along the way.
Despite the abrupt and annoying media blitz surrounding Susan Boyle, it’s impossible to not be moved by this less-than-fame hungry Scottish singer’s debut performance on Britain’s Got Talent. Still, the charm of a mousy middle-aged woman melting the heart of Simon Cowell (and millions of YouTube watchers around the world) doesn’t quite amount to a gripping autobiography in need of cover-to-cover reading. But, really, with a voice like hers, there’s no need to make herself heard any other way — especially when bad metaphors are involved.
For a revolutionary artist with a true Midas touch, it’s no surprise that Jay-Z’s Decoded defies autobiography conventions. Structured around lyrics and personal anecdotes, the book explores the experiences that have inspired his lyrics, the cultural movement behind hip-hop, and the art form that he has helped to define. In describing his approach, he admits: “I’ve never been a linear thinker, which is something you can see in my rhymes. They follow the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion, not the straight line of careful prose. My book is like that, too.”
From his boy band days with Menudo to the Latin pop explosion of the late ‘90s and on to his self-outing earlier this year, Ricky Martin has managed to cyclically revive his pop culture appeal without alienating his fans. In the modestly titled Me, he details the intimacies of these already publicized eras with surprising candor, while hashing back through what he describes as an “incredible spiritual journey.” Sure, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was the scourge of the Top 40 airwaves at the turn of the millennium, but Martin’s effusive enthusiasm is just as catchy.
It’s difficult to imagine anything new being revealed about Frank Sinatra, but James Kaplan brings a novelist’s sensibilities to this new biography. Frank: The Voice is a fresh and fast-paced take that begins with Sinatra’s youth in Hoboken and carries on through his early singing efforts, marriages to saint-like Nancy Barbato and Hollywood siren Ava Gardner, the ups and downs of his limelight career as a musician and actor, and all the idiosyncratic details that make him such an enduring American icon.